Chronicle defies judge over contempt of court

The Evening Chronicle has defied a judge’s order to appear before him and explain its decision to name a minor made pregnant after unlawful sexual intercourse until the judge specifies how it has broken the law.

A 15-year-old defendant walked from the court, after pleading guilty, with only a 12-month supervision order. His victim and her mother immediately waived their right to anonymity to slam the legal system for what they claimed was his soft treatment. The youth was charged with rape but the charge was reduced.

On Thursday last week, the Newcastle-based paper ran a front-page splash headlined "12-year-old mum’s sex case ordeal" with an intro reading: "Brave teenager É has opened her heart about the sex ordeal which left her pregnant at the age of 12."

Judge David Hodson sat at Newcastle Crown Court at 5.30pm that day to rule that any newspaper which identified the girl would be in contempt of court.

He demanded that the Chronicle editor and counsel should appear before him the next day and said the story was a clear contempt of court. He also made a Section 39 order banning identification of the defendant.

Judge Hodson described the Chronicle front page as the "most irresponsible piece of journalism I have ever come across. This is a 13-year-old being exposed to publicity in the grossest manner".

The newspaper heard about this only from news agency North News.

Solicitors for the newspaper wrote to ask Judge Hodson to clarify the extent of the orders he had made and to specify the contempt of court. Acting editor Murray Morse would comply with his demand once the reasons for it were explained, they said.

Assistant editor Jane Pickett told Press Gazette: "We are satisfied that under the law we are completely right.  The judge made an unachievable demand on us to appear before him with very little notice and, from what we can see, no good reason. Hence, we declined to attend and have asked him for another date."

Morse said: "I don’t want this just left hanging in the air. I think it is wrong a judge can make all these sorts of comments attacking a newspaper and the credibility of its staff and for it not be sorted out one way or another. We feel we have got a very good case."

There was no Section 39 order in force when the Chronicle obtained the waiver. "That in itself, I think, would be a matter of public interest," said Morse. "No newspaper wants to see these banning orders put on willy-nilly but one of the reasons why I felt it was important we should run this story and name those involved was because clearly the young girl, her mother and family felt they had been let down by the justice system.

"How can I be in contempt of court if there were no actual proceedings continuing? We stand by the decision to run the story."  

By Jean Morgan

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